Family Merger (Chapter One)

Kathryn Roper suddenly found herself face-to-face with one very handsome, very angry man. Tall, neatly groomed and impeccably dressed in a custom-made suit, he looked too young to be so conservatively dressed. The gray pinstripe was something her father would wear. This man ought to be wearing a cream-colored Polo shirt and tan slacks. He had the body of an athlete, though she didn't know any athletes who had such good taste in clothes and such bad taste in visiting hours.

"Don't stand there staring at me," he snapped. "I've flown halfway around the world to get here. I want to see Miss Roper."

If she'd had any doubts this man was Ron Egan, she didn't have them any longer. He had the imperious attitude of a man who thought nothing was important but himself.

"I'm Kathryn Roper," she said, "and I don't allow visitors after nine-thirty. You'll have to come back tomorrow."

His angry gaze narrowed its focus, bore into her like a laser. "You're too young and pretty to have turned into a battle-ax."

Kathryn couldn't stop a spurt of laughter. "Who says a battle-ax has to be old and ugly?"

He appeared to be weighing her up, calculating his approach. He was just like many upper echelon types she'd run across, ready to shout at people they thought unimportant but immediately taking a different tack when they encountered someone they considered on their level.

Yet she was having a very different reaction to him than what would have been usual for her – one of a purely physical nature, one that caught her off guard. She felt attracted to this man. She had never denied the possibility of instant chemistry between two people, but this was the first time it had happened to her.

What a tragedy his outside should be so beautiful when his inside was rotten. But that's the way it seemed to go with her and men.

In a way, she was just as impressionable as the girls who came to her for help. All too often they had been seduced by a man's appearance. Only she was older, more experienced and had her physical desires firmly under control. She might have a gut-clenching reaction to Ron Egan, but he'd never know it.

"I want to see my daughter. Where is she?"

"She's in bed, as are all the girls in this house. You can see her in the morning."

"I've come all the way from Geneva. I got on the next flight out after your phone call and spent the last eight hours on a plane. I'm six time zones away from where I started, and I'm tired. It won't hurt her to miss thirty minutes of sleep."

"It's not the sleep I'm concerned about so much as that your visit will upset her. It's extremely important that she remain calm. She's going through a stressful experience."

They still stood there in the entrance hall, facing each other like gladiators, each trying to decide how to manipulate this conversation to their own advantage. At least that's how Ron read it.

"She's a minor," Ron said. "I can force you to give her up."

"It's not a matter of my giving her up. She came here of her own free will. She wants to stay. If you care for her, you'll let her stay."

Ron didn't know quite how to respond. From the moment he'd received a call from a stranger telling him his daughter was pregnant and had run away from home, he hadn't known what to think. He hadn't expected to find his daughter housed in an elegant old mansion in the heart of the oldest and most fashionable neighborhood in Charlotte. Kathryn Roper wasn't at all what he'd expected, either.

His first impulse was to shout at this woman for having the effrontery to imply he didn't care for his daughter. Who was she to make such a judgment? She didn't know anything about him. Cynthia had every right to be upset, but he was sure if he could talk to her, they could straighten things out.

Still, there was something about this woman that caused him to look at her again, to reevaluate. He was used to women being visibly affected by his appearance. She didn't show any reaction whatsoever. She didn't appear the least bit intimidated by him, by his size, his reputation or his gender. She looked quite young and slender, even fragile, but she acted as if she thought she was as tough as any man.

"I can have you arrested for kidnapping."

"But you won't."

"Why? It's not because I'm too honorable."

"I imagine you know enough dirty tricks to fill a book, but you wouldn't want any of this splashed over the front page of The Charlotte Observer."

"I don't give a damn about that paper."

"I don't believe you."

"What you believe isn't important. Since it's my daughter we're talking about, it's what I believe that's important. And if you don't know that, I'll get a judge to explain it to you."

"Who are you planning to ask – Frank Emery? He's my godfather. Emily Anders is a friend of my mother. I think my brothers have worked with every other judge in Charlotte."

"Are you telling me the judges can be bought?"

Much to his surprise, she flushed. "No, and it was quite wrong of me to imply they could be. Come into the living room. We'd better sit down."

"I don't want to talk, and I don't want to sit down."

"If you hope to convince me you flew halfway around the world because you care what happens to your daughter, you'll sit down."

"Why should I care what you think?"

"Because Cynthia does."

He didn't want to believe her, but there was no other reason he could think of for Cynthia's presence in this house. He still had every intention of taking her home, but maybe it would be better to hear what this woman had to say. After his wife died, he'd had an increasingly difficult time communicating with his daughter. He didn't understand how the lovable, biddable little girl who used to climb onto his lap to read had turned into the silent, sulking, angry teenager who sometimes refused to eat breakfast with him and often made excuses to miss dinner as well. Maybe he should have taken some time off before now, but he had to have this one last deal to put his company into a position where its success didn't depend solely on him.

He intended to hire the best therapists he could find, but if Kathryn could help, he'd be foolish not to listen to her. Cynthia had chosen to come here, and she always had a reason for anything she did.

"I'd like something to drink," he said.

"I don't serve liquor to guests."

"I don't drink liquor. Ice water would be fine."

"I'll be right back."

Ron watched her leave, the sight of her backside causing a surprising reaction in his groin. He hadn't felt like that in years, certainly not with a woman who seemed ready to oppose him in every way she could. Yet Kathryn wasn't like any of the women who faced him across a board table or the functionaries who kept his various offices running smoothly.

He had worked with single-minded determination from the time he was ten to get where he was today. He'd sacrificed leisure, friends, nearly everything most men would consider the rewards of success so Cynthia would have all the advantages.

It was clear Kathryn Roper looked down on him. That was all the more reason to be angry he was attracted to her. Hell, it was nearly impossible to be angry with a woman when you found yourself wondering what it would be like to get closer to her. How was he supposed to concentrate on her shortcomings when her body distracted him?

Just then Kathryn returned with a glass of ice water. Her front looked just as good as the back. It was a good thing she couldn't read his thoughts. She'd probably throw the water in his face.

"Now let's talk about your daughter," she said after she'd handed him the water and allowed him time to take a few sips.

"Tell me what you do," Ron said. "I still can't figure out why Cynthia would come to you."

She looked as if she took that as a personal insult, but surely she had to know a father couldn't just take for granted she was qualified to be responsible for his daughter.

"I maintain this house as a shelter for unwed young girls who become pregnant."

"How much money do you owe on it?"

"My aunt left it to me."

"I don't imagine your neighbors are thrilled with what you're doing." People don't pay upwards to a million dollars for a big house to find themselves next door to a halfway house for pregnant teens.

"Not everybody likes what I'm doing, but I'm a good neighbor. The girls are quiet and well behaved. I don't allow visits from boys unless I'm present and then only brothers or the fathers of their babies."

"How many girls do you have here?"

"I have room for ten, but I only have four now."

"Who looks after them when you go to work?"

"This is my work."

"You mean you have a trust fund that allows you to do nothing."

"I have an income that allows me to provide a service to the community."

Just what he thought. A rich woman with nothing to do, who excused her meddling by thinking she was providing a social service these girls couldn't find elsewhere.

"How do they know about you? Do you advertise?"

He'd angered her. She sat with her clenched hands in her lap, her back ramrod straight, her knees together.

"They learn of me through their friends or from girls who have been here. When they come to me, I urge them to go to their parents immediately. I tell them all the reasons that would be preferable to staying here. I'm proud to say most of them do go home. Two have come back afterward, but most found their parents were more supportive than they expected. Mostly the girls fear their parents will hate them for what they've done."

"Don't think you're going to convince me Cynthia thinks I'll hate her. We don't always agree, but she – "

"Cynthia believes your work comes before her."

"It keeps me away from home a lot, but nothing is more important to me than Cynthia. Why do you think I hired so many people to take care of her?"

"I imagine what she wanted and needed was you, your time and attention, your assurance that she was more important than your work."

"She knows that."

"She told me she came here because she doesn't want her having a baby to get in your way."

That was such a ridiculous statement he could hardly believe his daughter made it. He wasn't even sure what it meant. "Cynthia couldn't possibly get in my way. I've hired four people to take care of her. If she wants anything, she only has to ask for it."

"She still doesn't believe she's as important to you as your next merger."

"Of course she is. If she wants, she can go to Switzerland with me as soon as school is out." He realized with a terrible sense of guilt he hadn't even considered that until the words came out of his mouth. If she had wanted to go vacationing with one of her friends, he'd have been happy to let her.

"She wants to stay here. She doesn't want to hurt you or the baby's father."

"That's something else I want to know. Where can I find the boy who did this?"

"I have several rules. One is I never ask the name of the father. Another is even if I know it, I never reveal it."

"You're a regular paragon of virtue, aren't you?"

She must have a difficult time with her shelter. He didn't imagine many fathers would have been as calm as he had been so far, but he couldn't work up the will to rant and rave at Kathryn. He intended to take Cynthia home, but he didn't think Kathryn was an evil person. She was just a well-meaning busybody who couldn't keep her nose out of other people's business.

"My only purpose is to help these girls. I want to give them a safe place to stay where they can continue their education, have their babies, then decide what to do with the rest of their lives. I don't provide a permanent solution, just a temporary refuge from all the pressure."

"All that sounds fine and noble, but what are you getting out of this?"

"I beg your pardon!"

"People don't do things like this without a reason. You're rich. I imagine your friends are building careers, going to parties and having children. There's got to be some reason you'd give all that up to baby-sit pregnant teenagers. And there's no point glaring at me. I don't intimidate."

"Neither do I."

"Good, then answer my question. Why are you doing this?"

"Because something like this happened to my sister," she said after a pause. "I saw the damage it could do when it was handled badly."

She meant it happened to her, he thought. People always put traumatic events off on a relative, a friend, even a neighbor. They only reacted like Kathryn Roper when it really happened to them. She didn't seem like the kind of woman to let her emotions get the better of her. But then who better to learn to control her emotions than someone who had failed to do so and paid the price?

He looked at her, sitting so stiffly in the chair opposite him and felt some of his aggravation melt away. It couldn't be easy. She must relive what happened to her every time a girl came to her for help. Most people would want to put it behind them, to forget, pretend it never happened, but she'd had the courage to turn her personal tragedy into a benefit to the community. He had to admire her for that. And it was a real community service.

He wondered what had happened to her baby.

What did Cynthia mean to do with her baby? For the first time it hit him that he was about to become a grandfather. He had just turned forty.

"I want to see Cynthia."

"As I told you before, she's in bed."

"I heard you the first time, but you can't really think I'll just get up and walk out that door."

"It would be better if you waited until the morning."

"It would be better if this had never happened, but it has and I'll deal with it. Now I want to see my daughter."

Kathryn didn't move.

"You can get her for me, or I'll get her myself. It's your choice, but I'm going to see her."

"I won't let you yell at her, and I won't let you force her to leave."

"I hope I won't yell at her. I imagine she's extremely upset already, but I can't make any promises. How would you feel about leaving your only child in the hands of a stranger?"

"I wouldn't do it, but you've been doing that all her life."

This female didn't fight fair. "My work makes it impossible for me to be at home all the time. My staff has been with Cynthia for more than ten years."

Kathryn got to her feet. "I'll ask Cynthia if she wants to come down."

She left the room before he could make it plain that in this instance, at least, the decision wasn't up to Cynthia.

He was extremely tired, but he was too full of nervous energy to sit still. He got up and walked about the room. It was impossible not to notice that even though the furniture looked extremely comfortable and well used – the window treatments subtle, the carpets not new – everything had the look of being quite expensive. It was the kind of furniture that said I'm so expensive and well made I don't have to look expensive. Ron had studied such things. The trappings of success he made sure he acquired. He hadn't had anything when he was a kid. He was determined everybody would know that wasn't the case any longer. He finished his water and set the glass in what looked like a candy dish.

He wondered how things had gone with the meeting in Geneva. He was sure his colleagues Ted and Ben would do an excellent job of explaining why the two companies would do better under new management. It was just that he'd never before left the start of negotiations to anyone else. It was essential to know people's starting positions, prejudices and all, if he was going to bring them together in the end. Part of his reputation had been built on personal attention to every detail. If Ron Egan came after your company, you knew you were going to be meeting with Ron Egan all the time. He wondered what his absence now would do to his reputation.

Oh well, he'd be back in Geneva tomorrow. Or the next day. He could sleep on the plane if worrying about Cynthia didn't keep him awake again. This was one merger that wouldn't be easy. It wasn't merely a matter of money or paperwork. It was people and politics. You had to find a way to bring both together, and nobody could do that better than Ron Egan. It was how he'd raised himself from a kid whose parents didn't have enough money to buy him decent shoes or a winter coat to a man whose income had reached nine figures this last year.

He turned abruptly away from a mirror that showed him a much too realistic view of himself. He had the look of a successful man – the clothes, the carriage, the confidence – but right now that left a bad taste in his mouth. His daughter had become pregnant. Worse, she had turned to a perfect stranger for support rather than to him. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know something was wrong there. He was an expert when it came to analyzing people, figuring out what made them tick, knowing what to do to make them come down on his side.

How had he managed to fail so badly with his own daughter?

Why was she afraid of him? What would he have done if she had come to him?

The door opened, and Kathryn reentered the room. Cynthia followed. Ron felt almost as though he was looking at a stranger.

She had put on jeans and a T-shirt, allowed her dark-blond hair to fall over her shoulders. She displayed none of the sullen anger he'd seen the last time he was home. She faced him with a new calmness. Only her twitching toes – she was barefooted – betrayed any uneasiness.

Ron hadn't realized how much her facial features had grown to resemble her mother's. It was almost like seeing Erin the way she looked the first day they met. Cynthia was tall with slim bones, though right now she carried some extra weight. He remembered how much being overweight had affected his life. It had to be worse for a girl. They were under so much more pressure to be slim.

Like Kathryn.

He cursed silently and brought his mind back to his daughter.

In his mind she'd remained his little girl. He'd been too busy to realize she'd gone ahead and grown up on her own. And now she was in trouble, and he had to figure out some way to help her.

"Why did you come?" Cynthia asked. "I don't want you here."

"I'm your father."

"I'm sixteen."

Was there a single teenager in America who didn't think turning sixteen made him or her an adult? "I'm still your father. If you hadn't come home soon, Margaret would have called the police. I would have had the SBI and the FBI combing the state looking for you. You should have told me you were in trouble."

"You can't do anything about it."

"I could have tried to help."

"I don't need your help. I can do this on my own."

Despite the twitching toes, she didn't appear frightened or overly angry. It was almost as though he were a momentary obstacle she had to deal with before she could move on.

"When were you going to tell me about the baby?"

She didn't answer.

"How were you going to keep it a secret?"

"I'll stay here until after it's born. I don't have to go to school when I really start showing. Miss Roper has people come teach us. I can get my GED."

He spent ten thousand dollars a year to send her to the best private school in Charlotte, and she was talking about a GED! Didn't she have any idea how important it was to graduate from the right school? No matter what he had to do, he was determined Cynthia would do that.

"We'll worry about that later. Are you okay? You look pale."

"It's because I'm pregnant." Cynthia stumbled over the word that described her condition. "Mrs. Collias fixes meals especially for pregnant girls. She says she can make sure I have enough for the baby without getting fat."

Ron had almost forgotten Kathryn was still in the room. She had taken a seat near the door and was leafing through a magazine. She didn't trust him alone with his daughter, but at least she had the decency to pretend she wasn't listening to everything they said. He wondered if she was this protective of her other girls.

"All expectant mothers are supposed to gain weight."

His wife had gained forty pounds then lost it within a few months.

"If I get fat, I'll never get it off."

Ron didn't know how the conversation had drifted onto something as trivial as weight.

"What about the boy?" Ron asked. "The baby's father."

"He doesn't know."

"You have to tell him."

"No, I don't. It's my baby. Besides, I don't want to ruin his life, too."

"This is not going to ruin your life. I won't let it."

"I'm a pregnant, unwed teenager," Cynthia said, anger now rising to the surface. "There's nothing your money can do to change that."

He felt as if he were being punished for working so she would never have to endure privation. "You still have to tell the father. It's his baby as much as yours. He has a right to know."

"No, he doesn't."

For the first time since seeing her, he sensed fear. "I'm sure he'll guess when you don't return to school."

"I told everybody we were moving to Connecticut."

Ron knew it would be impossible to keep her baby a secret even if they did move to Connecticut, but he would deal with that later. Right now he needed to get Cynthia home and settled into her own room. And he needed to get out of Kathryn Roper's house.

"Get your things," Ron said. "I'm taking you home."

Cynthia pulled back from him. Something about her expression changed, something subtle that made her look less like a child and more like a woman.

"I'm not going home. I'm staying here."

Ron knew his relationship with his daughter wasn't the best in the world, but she'd never refused point-blank to do anything reasonable. "Why not?"

"I just told you," Cynthia said, sounding impatient. "I don't want anybody to know."

"They'll know soon enough."

"Not if I stay here and you go back to Switzerland. They'll believe we moved to Connecticut, just like I said. I told them we were keeping the house with Margaret and everybody else in case we didn't like it. I told them I didn't want to go but some of your Yale buddies had talked you into it because it would put you closer to New York, that it would be good for your business."

Ron didn't bother pointing out that such a story was so full of holes it probably wouldn't last a day. The school would call if she missed more than one day without an excuse. Her friends would call. Neighbors would ask questions. There was no way she could keep her disappearance a secret.

"Why don't you let me take you home?" Ron asked. "We can both get a good night's sleep and try to come up with a plan in the morning."

"A plan for what?"

For the rest of your life Ron thought, exasperated. She didn't appear to realize nothing would ever be the same after this. She would be a mother. That was a barrier that would separate her from her friends almost as effectively as moving to Connecticut.

"Everything is going to be different after this," Ron said.

"I know that," Cynthia said. "I'm not stupid."

"I never said you were, but even intelligent people can have trouble thinking through unfamiliar situations. There are so many things you can't know at your age – "

"If you tell me even once I don't understand because I'm too young, I'll walk out of this room."

"You don't understand," Ron said, "not only because you're too young but because this is beyond your experience. Hell, your mother and I didn't understand, and we'd been planning for you for three years."

"Age and experience have nothing to do with it," Cynthia said as she got to her feet. "You've been a father for sixteen years, and you still don't understand a thing about children."

"I don't understand why you're more upset about your friends knowing you're pregnant than you are about having a baby. I half expected you'd be nearly hysterical begging me to help you get an abortion."

"I'd never do that! I want this baby. I need this baby."

"Cynthia, you've just turned sixteen. You're in the tenth grade. How can you need a baby?"

Tears sprang to her eyes. He reached out to her, but she backed away.

"You never let me have a cat. I begged you over and over again, but you wouldn't let me."

"I'm allergic to cats. You know that."

She started toward the door. "I would have kept it in my room. You never go there. I would have taken care of it myself."

She ran out leaving Ron wondering what had just happened. He turned to Kathryn who'd remained silent during the whole conversation, quietly turning pages in her magazine. Now she was looking at him with an expression of pity mingled with something that seemed to say You poor, dumb clod. You don't have a clue, do you?

"What? You're looking at me like I've dribbled ketchup down my shirt."

"You don't understand her, do you?"

"Are you saying you do?"

"Of course."

That irritated him. "There's no of course about it. Has she told you something I don't know?"

"Not in so many words."

Erin used to say that. She said men weren't supposed to understand women. "How about putting it into words a poor, dumb male can understand."

She stood and came toward him. She really was a lovely woman with a beautiful body. It was hard to concentrate on his daughter when he was having such a visceral reaction to this woman. Why wasn't she married? What was wrong with the single men in Charlotte that she was left alone to oversee other men's daughters?

"Cynthia wanted something to love," Kathryn said, "something of her own that would love her back."

"I offered to buy her a puppy, but she said she didn't want a dog."

"Did you get her one anyway?"

"No."

Kathryn sighed, and he felt even more out of it. "Now what?" he asked, becoming extremely frustrated.

"She would have taken the puppy."

"She said she didn't want it. She said she wouldn't even give it a name."

"She would have taken it and been happy. Didn't any one of those women you employ tell you that?"

"I was in Chicago. My secretary talked to Margaret."

"Did it ever occur to you that since you've hired a staff to take care of your daughter, it might be a good idea to ask their opinion, maybe even let them handle the situation?"

"Margaret has authority to buy anything Cynthia needs."

"Cynthia's wanting a cat was a cry for help. She wanted more attention than she was getting."

"It was a cat, for God's sake, not a security blanket."

"It might as well have been."

"Boys ask for dogs all the time. They'd never compare it to having a baby," he insisted.

"You don't understand women."

"I know that."

"And you don't understand your daughter."

They were standing there, facing each other like two antagonists squaring off over some kind of prize.

"I know that, too."

"I expect you tried," Kathryn said.

"You're too generous."

"You were probably too involved in your work to take the time to learn to really listen."

"I listen to her all the time."

"Maybe, but you're not hearing her. You're insensitive to women's issues. You need to spend more time – "

"I don't have more time," Ron broke in. "Do you have any idea how tough it is in the international market? Half the men out there would cut my throat if they could gain anything by it. And if I survive them, there's a new, young wizard popping out of the woodwork every day brimming over with ideas of how to do what I do cheaper and faster."

"I'm familiar with the business world. My father has spent his whole life in it, and he's just like you."

"So you're telling me it's hopeless?"

"Not if you really want to try. If you don't – "

"Would I come halfway around the world if I didn't?"

She seemed to accept that. She turned away and walked toward a bookcase built into the wall. "I can recommend several excellent books."

"I don't have time to read one book, not to mention several."

She turned back to face him, her expression impatient. "Then how do you expect to learn to be sensitive to your daughter's feelings? You need training."

"Then you train me."

"I doubt I'd be able to do that."

"How hard could it be? I'm bright, I'm willing and I'm ready to start now."